By Andrea Scarpino
Dear M. Proust,
I’ve now finished Book IV of In Search of Lost Time and am solidly into Book V. If my book group schedule holds, I will finish your sixth and final book by the end of June. This has been quite a long journey—we started last April, as you recall. Then, I promised you I would read every page of your mountainous journey, and I’ve mostly kept my promise. I’ll have to admit, the long conversations with Robert’s friends about military maneuverings —well, I skipped through much of that. And the detailed etymologies of place names—again, some skimming occurred.
But the sex in Book IV thoroughly kept my attention (even though I think you may have overestimated how many women in Balbec were really lesbians). In any case, I want to thank you for the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read, from the section called “The Intermittencies of the Heart.” There, you return to Balbec for the first time since your grandmother’s death, and for the first time, truly understand she is dead. Grief works mysteriously, doesn’t it? You were in the room when she died in Paris, you attended her funeral, you lived every day in a house suddenly empty of her presence. And yet, it took a return trip to the last beach vacation you took with her to unexpectedly understand that she is lost to you forever.
Here’s my favorite passage: “And I asked nothing more of God, if a paradise exists, than to be able, there, to knock on that wall with the three little raps which my grandmother would recognize among a thousand, and to which she would give those answering knocks which meant, ‘Don’t fuss, little mouse, I know you’re impatient, but I’m just coming,’ and that he would let me stay with her throughout eternity, which would not be too long for the two of us.”
Because that’s what grief often feels like. A bartering, even if you don’t believe in an afterlife, an overwhelming need to be with the one you’ve lost, no matter what the terms. The terms, “Which would not be too long for us.” And a constant dreaming. You also write, “And then I seemed to remember that shortly after her death, my grandmother had said to me, sobbing, with a humble look, like an old servant who has been given notice, like a stranger: ‘You will let me see something of you occasionally, won’t you; don’t let too many years go by without visiting me. Remember that you were my grandson, once, and that grandmothers don’t forget.’” A dreaming more vivid than being alive.
Intermittency. Because we can’t be present in grief forever, for every moment. It must come at intervals, it must release. And all this in the midst of a book called Sodom and Gomorrah, a book full of sex and obsessions over who might be secretly queer. I love you for this, for giving us that moment to remember your grief, to remember our own, even as the world continues moving. Even as our everyday is filled with gossip, dinner parties, the stuff of the living.
Anyway, I’ve heard Book V is the hardest to get through (can’t you just let get of Albertine already?) but I want you to know: you’ve won me over forever.
Andrea Scarpino is the west coast Bureau Chief of POTB. You can visit her at: